A Delicate Balance
When a ski area’s biggest asset is its relatively unknown status, unchecked growth is a double-edged sword
Ciche Pitcher knows he’s spoiled.
Discovery Ski Area’s 34-year-old president remembers waking up late on weekends as a teenager, making the 30-minute drive from his parents’ home in Anaconda, Montana, to Discovery, the resort his family owned, parking within earshot of the chairlift, and then dropping into a steep, untouched powder stash just a slight traverse from the lift.
Pitcher could still do that if he, along with his parents, weren’t running a ski area that draws customers from Butte (59 miles away), Missoula (92 miles), Helena (112 miles), and Bozeman (130 miles). They come from Helena, bypassing Great Divide (“Montana’s sunniest ski area”) for Discovery’s snow—about 200 inches each year, falling on mostly north-facing terrain.
On weekends, Bozeman skiers leave Bridger Bowl’s comparatively crowded slopes behind in favor of Discovery, which is roughly the same size as Bridger (2,000 skiable acres), but with a third of the skier visits.
Missoulians come for the unquantifiable—the feel. If you get to Discovery and forgot ski pants, don’t sweat it, just ski in jeans, you won’t be the only one. Or buy a new pair for $30 in the retail shop.
On Saturdays, the 16,000-square-foot, two-story lodge swells to bursting, like a family reunion in too small of a house. Hop on one of seven chairlifts and suddenly you’re free, nearly alone. The lodge is a chokepoint; the mountain spreads out skiers with aplomb, a layout that reflects Pitcher’s belief about skiing:
“It shouldn’t be like a surf break where you’re fighting over waves,” he said. “That’s not fun, that’s work. Skiing’s the same way. You don’t get into the sport so you can fight over a line.”
Of course, if the attraction of Discovery’s “feel” and its lift-served, uncrowded steeps continues to grow, this throwback area will cease to feel like Discovery.
Pitcher’s challenge as company president is to preserve and sustain what his parents built. And what Peter and Beatriz Pitcher built here is essentially the entire skiing experience.
The Pitchers bought Discovery in 1984 and moved weeks later from New Mexico, where Peter had managed Ski Santa Fe. Before the Pitchers bought Discovery at auction, the 10-year-old resort had defaulted on loans totaling $960,000 and its lone lift, handful of runs, and lodge had fallen into disrepair.
The Pitchers’ bid of $425,000 was the only one submitted. Despite the resort’s issues, Peter had been prepared to bid another $200,000. He saw untapped potential. With capital on hand, Peter made decisions with prescience bordering on prophecy. Decades of experience at Ski Santa Fe helped. Working for a father named Kingsbury (better known as “Pitch”), a ski industry pioneer who helped design Aspen Snowmass before purchasing Ski Santa Fe and then Wolf Creek, didn’t hurt either. (Ciche’s brother, Davey, is the owner of Wolf Creek, in southern Colorado.)
While other resorts sank money into high-speed lifts during the 1980s, Peter relocated quality fixed-grip chairs to Discovery at a quarter of the cost of new equipment.
“Relocating lifts wasn’t really a thing people were doing then,” Ciche said. “I don’t know if my father was the first person to be doing that, but he was certainly at the beginning of it in the 1980s.”
Peter invested in steeps with two lifts in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Lifts dedicated to expert runs skiable by only a small percentage of the population were thought by many to be a waste of capital. Peter went ahead and built them. The latter, a double called Limelight, hitting nothing but true double blacks, with some pitches topping out at almost 50 degrees, was unique in 1992. It still is.
“People have steeps all over the U.S. that you could say are comparable to Limelight’s,” explained Ciche. “But it’s really hard to find a place where you can ride one chair and just lap super-steep, exposed stuff efficiently. A lot of times you’re doing a cool lap but then you’re taking two chairs or a long cat track to get back to the [steeps].”
Discovery’s layout with its lack of long traverses and cat tracks comes as a revelation to skiers from other areas. Locals take it for granted.
“I’ve been to a lot of areas and consider myself a little bit snobby about things like how long it takes to make a lap, how easy it is to get from point A to point B,” Ciche says. “Certainly there’s never a time where we would need to relocate a lift or a terminal. It makes my job much more about subtle changes.”
The entire experience at Discovery should make the job easier. Beatriz runs the food and beverage department. Peter still takes an active role in mountain operations. Ciche himself is a veteran; by the time he was 13 years old, Ciche was a semi-regular worker, helping in the rental shop, ticket office, gift shop, or kitchen as needed. Since leaving a banking career in Missoula in 2009 for Discovery, Ciche has relearned the ropes, spending his first years back at Discovery much as he spent his formative ones. He worked in the rental shop, taught lessons, introduced kids to skiing in the Kinderski program, sold lift tickets, bumped chairs, and gradually took on more responsibility.
Here’s the thing about experience. Ciche’s fond of saying: “It’s only valuable insofar as you think the future is going to be like the past.”
A generation ago, “the ski industry used to be…so targeted at taking tourists from cities who had really never skied before and teaching them how to ski for a whole week on vacation,” Ciche explained. “Now we serve a clientele that already knows how to ski; the people [we teach] live in the communities around Discovery. In so many ways it feels like I’m almost in a different business entirely than [my parents] were. They were pioneers.”
When Ciche looks at upgrading a chairlift or terminals, the experience of the past certainly feels useful. His father still has the eye for identifying quality used equipment. Problem is, there’s not a substantial difference in price between used and new chairs, Ciche said. Too many buyers.
In the past, the goal was more skier visits and expansion was an option to accommodate increasing skier visits. The former in a major sense is no longer a goal; the latter is not an option. Discovery’s acreage is constrained by its basin location.
“I hope we don’t grow substantially,” Ciche said. “I want to try to stay in this pocket of visits and acreage. Having Philipsburg (population about 800) and Anaconda (9,000) nearby limits that somewhat.”
The growth, or lack of it, that Ciche refers to is confined to winter. Discovery’s most visible project since Ciche returned is the construction of a downhill mountain bike park, which opened in 2014. The bike park has five miles of trails and a 1,050-foot vertical drop already and is where Ciche sees a way to grow Discovery’s business without compromising its ski experience. It’s also a chance for him to pioneer solutions like his parents and grandparents did.
“There are so many questions [with bike parks], like how do you deal with these drier soils and keep it wet?” Ciche said. “When you look at all these parks across the U.S., you realize there isn’t really an established way to deal with it [that will work here]. We might have to design something from scratch. It’s how I think of the ski industry back then.”
Ciche has another solution to draw from scratch. In 2014 the BLM approved Discovery’s proposal to build an access road across public land connecting Philipsburg to Discovery’s backside steeps and cutting drive times to Discovery from the west by 20 minutes. Construction on the project began in the summer of 2015 with its estimated completion two years off.
For all of Ciche’s ideas to grow the family business, the one thing that’s not an option is “some sort of development,” Ciche said. No hotels or condos, even though the new road would connect to land Discovery owns.
Ciche has three reasons for not wanting to see Discovery’s character change: his children.
For Ciche, life began at Discovery; some of his first memories are of playing on the floor in the ticket office not far from where his desk sits today—a squatty metal thing in a corner behind the ticket window. His first job was on the mountain, of course (holding survey sticks; he was 7). The memories are everywhere—skiing with dad, chasing older brother Alesandro under the ski racks in the rental shop, tagging along with ski patrollers and instructors.
It’s a life Ciche wants for his kids. The ski resort that locals’ wildest imaginations might picture isn’t one that would feel like home. Not for them, not for Ciche, and not for his children.
Reece, 11 and Ciche’s oldest, is already certain that she could run Discovery’s retail shop on weekends if Ciche would just let her be. Erik is just 9, but already doing odd jobs around the resort.
It might not be realistic to think that one of his children will someday run Discovery, naïve even, but the idea of still being in the ski business in his 60s and coming to work everyday alongside his children?
“I’d love that; that’s the plan,” Ciche said.
Thirty years ago, Kevin and Nyla Taylor bought a small ski area in Montana and turned it into the pinnacle of the community. What happens when they retire?
Take It Slow
Because slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
Why Skiing Needs the Ski Shop
Support the shops that support skiing.